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The Agony over Ecstacy

July 10th, 2002 · No Comments

First, we had PATRIOT, a terrifying bill with a cute title which should have chilled the blood of any real patriot. Now, Congress continues the ironic-titling trend with the RAVE Act, short for Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstacy, an assault on partying so massive that it would put the Reverend Shaw Moore to shame.

Like dead baby jokes, the RAVE bill is both comic and horrifying. Most of the comedy is contained in the “findings” section, the part of every bill where legislators bluster about their high-minded purposes before getting on to the serious business of outlining the new ways in which we’re all to be probed, regulated, fined, and imprisoned. This bill’s “findings” are, briefly summarized, that E is bad for you, and that people who organize and promote raves are soulless monsters.

Senators Durbin (D-IL), Hatch (R-UT), Grassley (R-IA) and Leahy (D-VT) inform the nation that rave promoters sometimes sell glow sticks, massage oils, and pacifiers, as props “to enhance the effects of drugs patrons have ingested.” This proves, I suppose, that the law of supply and demand applies to raves as to all other venues, but I’m not sure it’s a sign of any terrible depravity. The intent of the authors, though, is to demonstrate that rave organizers are fully aware that people often come to raves under the influence of drugs. Which is to say, rave organizers have not spent the last twenty years in a Soviet fallout shelter. The implication, though, is that this makes them blameworthy, even exploitative. To see why this ends up being comic, consider some of the evidence the senators adduce. Raves are often alcohol free, with ample juice and water provided for dancers, and well-cooled “chill out” areas. Promoters even hire “off-duty, uniformed police officers to patrol outside of the venue,” not, apparently, to help ensure a safe event, but “to give parents the impression that the event is safe.” I, somewhat foolishly, take all these to be good things. Our brain damaged drug policy may guarantee that people are taking street pills of dubious quality instead of safer, pharmaceutical grade stuff, but hey, at least the organizers are making some effort to reduce the damage people do to themselves by becoming dehydrated. I had forgotten our ostritch-head-in-the-sand approach to drugs. You see, if we acknowledged that, yes, American citizens (and even some teenagers) are going to use drugs come hell or high water, and asked what a sane policy response would be, we’d have ditched prohibition decades ago. But since policymakers at least pretend to believe that the drug problem can be “solved,” those who attempt to reduce the harms of drug use are seen as encouraging drug use, rather than accomodating an intransigent fact.

Really radical socialists used to hate charity — and maybe still do, if there are any left — for the same reason: good Marxists were supposed to be abolishing classes and overthrowing the system, not making the best of an unfortunate situation. The meliorative strategy was an unpleasant reminder that daydreams of total social transformation were just that: daydreams. Apparently lawmakers have their own version of the Leninist theory that things must get much, much worse before they get better. So our precious, precious children, whom we must prevent from being exploited by unscrupulous rave profiteers, must under no circumstances have safe environments in which to use drugs. Instead, I suppose, they’ll head out into the woods, where they’ll die off quickly and spare the good senators all that annoying techno music blaring out car windows.

That, so far, is the tragic comedy. The horror is in the body-proper of the bill. RAVE makes it a crime to “manage or control any place, whether permanently or temporarily, either as an owner, lessee, agent, employee, occupant, or mortgagee, and knowingly and intentionally rent, lease, profit from, or make available for use, with or without compensation, the place for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.” In English, that means that if you throw a shindig, and people are getting high, you get to cough up a $250,000 fine if you’re lucky, and cough up your 300-lb cellmate’s bodily secretions in federal prison if you aren’t.

The “knowingly and wilfully” caveat reminds us that, as with employment discrimination, it is crimes of the mind that are being banned. What’s illegal is to not become sufficiently horrified by the prospect that someone might use drugs at your party. But the application of this must surely go beyond raves. Anyone who holds a concert (Christian rock acts excepted, one assumes) or a NORML rally must at least suspect that a few people in a group of hundreds or thousands might toke up. The new law, then, effectively gives federal prosecutors carte blanche to target any large gathering in support of unpopular causes, or even concerts by groups with uncomfortable political messages. This blatant entrenchment in law of the principle of guilt by association is as open an invitation as one could imagine to the arbitrary deployment of state power. And that, if you’ll forgive the expression, sounds stark raving mad.

Join the Drug Policy Alliance’s campaign against the RAVE Act!

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